Friday, December 25, 2015

Those Christmas Lights


        I remember sitting in front of the Christmas tree. I was maybe five or six years old. I would watch the lights dance from one place to another, flashing across bulbs and crystal angels. My favorites were the cloth elves whose bones were made of steal wire. I don't remember my imaginary scenarios with them, but I do remember them being my favorite thing about Christmas. I remember pretending things with them and playing in the tree. I would go lay down in front of the heat register and watch the lights flash and wait for the furnace to clank, then fire heat to my face. When the heat would turn off, I would feel lonely. At some point in every kid's life, Christmas should become their favorite time of year. My mom made Christmas a big deal for us from the start. I love Christmas.

        I was sitting on the floor sweating like I had never sweat before. I was sitting inside of a teddy bear suit. I was young and little and people eat that up. Put a cute kid with a personality inside of a teddy bear costume and you will sell all of those small church Christmas pageant tickets. I remember saying some rehearsed things that were meant to be cute and the whole crowd laughing. I looked out and saw old women with Kleenex and old men in woolen suits and fur hats. I saw what Christmas looks like to people who need Christmas. Ordinary people with simple lives, enjoying the feeling of being together with their friends and family.


        Life became hard for me. At some point Christmas became something I couldn't reach, and that made Christmas sad and lonely. I had my rituals. I would take a walk around the city and look at the lights as drunk as I could make myself. I would go to Meyer and buy gifts for the five for six people that meant anything to me and end up sleeping underneath my own Christmas tree, staring at it's lights. During my walk, I would watch the warmth of family in other houses. I had family of my own, so I still don't understand it. But I wanted in. I felt outside of everywhere I went. I would take these walks because I felt alone and wanted to watch someone else's home. I sometimes brought a flashlight to flash, to remind people that I was still here. Like a beacon on a lighthouse in the fog, I was invisible.


        After wonderful things happened, I found myself watching my kids stare at the Christmas tree, just like I did. There was so much wonder in their eyes. I felt like me watching them. My awesome mom bought me the closest replicas to those elves that could be found on Ebay. My kids got to see Christmas like I did. Beautiful, innocent, and quiet. This was just like the coming of Jesus. Until the phone rang one Christmas morning and changed our expectations of Christmas morning. It was Joe. He told me that my brother Will was dead. I dropped the phone and went down stairs and sat down on a laundry basket. My wife asked me what was wrong, what had happened? One of my lighthouses had gone dark. I took my time to get to his house, I didn't wan't to face it. But I did.

        5 years later, while the lights twinkled and flashed across my house for my kids especially to see, I drank vodka. I drank it because I didn't know how else to go back and feel my brother with me again. I got a call. This time it was about Joe. He was gone. I was now the last of the Dead End Kids. Terrible things were felt, but I had to find a way to tell my kids and not ruin their Christmas. I spent most of my time in the basement in front of the computer, looking at pictures. Finally, I just told my kids the truth.

        To do that is like playing an instrument. A sad song starts with a piano or guitar. As a musician, you wait for your turn to add something to the story. You listen to all of these beautiful contributions from people just like you. When it's your turn, you just bleed all over because that's all you have.

        That's what it was like telling my children their uncle Joe was dead. I could only tell them it was over; when it was my time to weep through my instrument. He was gone and I was so sorry. At that very moment, the Christmas lights from the tree flashed all over the basement and my two kids wept because they really loved their Uncle Joe as they did, their Uncle Will. A few days later, when their uncle was put to rest, they both resumed Christmas. They celebrated like we should all celebrate. They kept focused on the Jesus...the beacon of hope. He was a beacon to all people, even if they can't see it.

        Christmas isn't about death. It's not about any sadness at all. When my kids look at those lights, they are looking for a miracle. One just like when Jesus came. They are looking for people to be happy. I wrote about this before and I will again. The reason I still love Christmas is because of my little girl. The day Will died, we were all in pieces. That little girl came up to me as I was weeping in my living room and handed me a little pink heart. She told me I needed it more because my heart was broken. She knew a lot of things I had forgotten.


God is good.
God loves us.
No one is being punished.
Sometimes we get confused and lose our way.

        I think that's what happened.

Merry Christmas to my brothers who left. I love you. The lights will always be dimmed without you.


Thanks for reading...Z

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Pact (A Short Story)

        In order from left to right, Danny, Tom, Jim, and Carey; the four adopted sons of Sam and Edith Cone, sat around the table on the first Sunday of May. The agreement they had made to Edith was that they would come eat dinner together on the first Sunday of each month. The agreement was made individually with each child on the day they were adopted.

        Danny was the oldest; adopted from an orphanage just outside of Baltimore. He was found living on the streets before being arrested for loitering and taken into custody. The Cones had gone to visit him three times before having the courage to adopt him. Edith couldn't have children of her own, so it was her decision to adopt only children that were considered too old or too troubled to be adopted. She told Sam that it was such a waste to adopt a new baby, when there were all of these older kids running out of time. She sat down with Danny on the playground slide and made him the deal. "Once you are old enough to leave my home, you must come back every Sunday to eat with us. That's what real families do, and we would really like to you to be a part of our real family." He agreed and the papers were signed that day. Danny struggled to find his way for a while, but as he grew closer to Edith and Sam, he started to see himself inside instead of outside.

        Tom was adopted from Fort Lauder-dale, Florida. Tom was in and out of foster care homes as fast as they could place him. Tom really, really liked to burn things down. He was smart about it and methodical. He would never leave any evidence that the fires were started on purpose or by him at all. At first Tom was polite and quite with the Cones. He ate properly, got good grades, and kept up after himself. About 5 months into his residence with the Cones, their garage went up in flames, burning down all of their photos and keepsakes that were put in there to make room for his bedroom. Sam awoke early the next morning and got Tom out of bed and took him to the pier. They sat down on the edge of the pier, kicking their legs over the side for a couple of hours until the sun came up. Sam didn't mention the fire to Tom and Tom didn't speak at all. The next week, when all of the debris was cleared, Sam built a large fire pit in it's place. He handed Tom a box of wooden matches and told him that if he felt the need to light fires, this pit was the place; not their dinner table.

        Jim was adopted straight from an emergency shelter that was housed inside of a juvenile correctional facility in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been severely beaten by his father and had been hospitalized. Jim didn't speak much at all; only offering direct and short answers to specific questions. Despite his dismal non-verbal communication tactics, he excelled in communicating with his fists to anyone who would listen. This behavior got him bounced from school to school and kicked out of church forever. Jim would often be taken home by the police and handed over to a very weary Edith and Sam. Jim raised his fists to everyone but those living in Edith and Sam's home. They were family.

        Carey was adopted from a juvenile correctional facility he had earned residence with a year prior for spray painting penises all over the interior walls of his school. Carey was the jokester. He had a way of making Edith laugh at inappropriate times, such as church and ceremonies. Of the three other brothers in the Cone house, Carey was the easiest to get along with. To him, everything was a joke and he seemed to never get angry. He was the smallest and youngest of the kids, and relied on his three older brothers to keep the bullies at bay. He made a lot of enemies with his mouth and they, (mostly Jim) had to back him up.


         The four were all adopted within 5 years of each other and did not become instant friends. They did gradually become brothers, sharing in the hobbies and talents of each other. Danny would help them with mathematics and wanted to become an engineer. Tom was the best basketball player they had ever seen and eventually got a scholarship to a small university. Jim played hockey throughout high school and would eventually become a brawler in the boxing ring for small change. Carey always said he wanted to own and run a rubber chicken factory. They would all laugh, but they had all seen him staring at the stars and reading books about other planets and constellations.        


        When Sam had died, they no sooner got his funeral arrangements settled when Edith passed too. The four boys buried their parents next to each other in a cemetery just two blocks from where they lived. They made a new pact: They would walk here to see their parents after they had eaten together on the first Sunday of every month.

        The pact held up and they broke bread together and visited their beloved parents at their grave every month until the first Sunday of April that year when Carey didn't show up. They would find him dead at his home after having succumbed to the side effects of using too much heroine. A side effect of being a clown to people who don't know better. He hadn't fooled them though. He was cremated and his ashes given to his brothers to decide what to do with. It didn't take long before they figured out what to do with them.


        "Hey Tommy, you gotta light?" said Jim. "Ha! Funny Jimmy, you got any teeth left? I got an extra apple right here..." Tom replied while pulling out a middle finger from his pocket. Jim reached across the aisle of the plane and punched him in the arm. Jim continued, "Hey Danny, what do orphans get at Christmas?" Danny sighed, "what do they get Jimmy?" "Lonely," Jim replied. Tommy sat silently shaking his head, then spit out some of his drink trying not to let Jim notice he was laughing. "Still not sure why we have to do this on Christmas. We are leaving the snow in Boston on Christmas for the desert? I like the sun, but not on Christmas," said Danny. Tommy replied, "Like you got anyone but us to celebrate with anyway Danny. Might as well do it where things are easier to burn."


Danny: Well, here we are. How do we do this?
Jim: You didn't forget Carey's rocket did you? If you did, you're going over this cliff with him.
Tommy: I got it in my bag. Should we say something?
Danny: No Tommy, we are just gonna chuck him off the Grand Canyon and walk away.
Tommy: Come on man.
Jim: I'll start. You guys shut up. Alright, what's got 5 arms, 3 legs, and two feet? The finish line at the Boston marathon.
Danny: (Holds his hands over his face, feeling terrible that he is laughing). Carey would have liked that one. Ok, my turn: A man is talking with his wife the other day and he asks her to tell him something that will make him happy and piss him off at the same time. His wife thinks for a moment then replies...Your penis is bigger than your brother's.
Jim: Funny because it's true isn't it Tommy.
Tommy: Wait, you slept with my wife?
Jim: Size don't matter.
Tommy: Alright idiots, my turn. In kindergarten class, the teacher tells the kids to come up and write something exciting that happened this morning. Little boy Johnnie walks up to the front of the class and grabs a piece of chalk and writes the word "Period" on the blackboard, then sat back down. The teacher looked in bewilderment for moment, then needled Johnnie for an explanation. "What's that mean Johnnie?" He says, "I don't know, but this morning my sister said she missed one. Then daddy had a heart attack, mommy fainted, and Uncle Bob shit is pants.

        Danny and Jim stood silently shaking their heads at Tommy. Jim cracked a grin, then reached into Tommy's backpack and pulled out a small model rocket. He sat it down on the red rocks that overlooked a vast hole in the earth, too large and deep to fathom it's origins. Danny said, "I did the honors of putting Carey in it at the hotel, so we don't have to taste him in this wind. You're welcome." The three brothers sat down on the rock and waited for the sun to finish it's descent below the horizon exposing the innumerable amount of stars in the galaxy. "I can kinda see what he saw in looking at this," Jim said. "Yeah, me too," Tom replied then continued, "Let's send him off, I'll take care of the pyrotechnics." Danny hands him a lighter while grinning. Tom puts the fire to the wick and sends the homemade rocket into the Christmas night sky. They watch it flash, burn, fade, then go dark as it soared into what looked like space to them.

        Jim asked, "You guys ever wonder where we would have been with ma and dad?" They all look at each other and nod. He continued, "Me either." Jim pointed out into the sky. Danny put his hand on Jim's shoulder and watched his tears fall to the dirt. Tommy, picked up his bag from the ground and said, "Goodbye you little bastard, may God kick you out of Heaven for that mouth." Danny said, "Merry Christmas my brothers.



Thanks for reading...Z

Monday, December 14, 2015

Little Lights on the Stables

             Elizabeth curled up into her sleeping bag as the midnight wind howled around the tenement building she lived in, sweeping through the trees and through the screen into her bedroom. She had always slept like this. She could sleep no other way. She only felt comfort when she was a few feet from the cold dangers of humanity, but safe beneath the iron armor of her sleeping bag. She winced her eyes and said a final prayer to God to give her parents.

            She was the oldest child in the orphanage. She was fully aware of the statistics regarding her adoption chances at her age. She was whopping 9 years old; too old for a new family, but too young for the farmers looking for free help. Tomorrow, Betty and Jim Gustafson were coming to meet her. The housemother informed her that the couple was advanced in age and looking for a child that wasn’t incontinent or needy. Elizabeth fit the criteria. She had never complained about a thing and no one had ever seen her use the bathroom. She was shy and aware of her surroundings.

            That night Elizabeth dreamed of her real parents. Really, it was more of a sleeping memory. They had left her at the hospital when she broke her arm after falling out of a tree at about 5 years old. Her parents were poor, and got often frustrated with the way Elizabeth would talk about her dreams and ambitions. She would neglect her chores to read about a boy that led all of the children out of a town that refused to pay him for what they had agreed to. They had tried to point out her hypocrisy by explaining that she was doing the very same thing to them that the city did to that pied piper. She continued to dream big and work slowly. One Sunday after church, instead of feeding the horses, she climbed a tree with a book about a little boy that ruled a world where kids got to do whatever they wanted. As she was reading, her branch broke and she fell to the ground.

            The last she saw of her parents was in the emergency waiting room. The nurse told them they could come back with her, but they refused. When the arm was casted, no one came for her until morning, when a woman in a gray suit and a briefcase introduced herself. She always would wake up at this very moment and find herself sleeping in a small room on a metal bed, staring up at the curtains as they danced with the wind in the night. These nights always seemed the most silent. Nothing was ever going on to distract her from who and where she was. They were out there somewhere, and she was alone. She didn’t have the energy to perform any tricks for the Gustafsons. She came out and remained shy and aware.

            Elizabeth stood at the foot of Betty’s grave freshly filled in. She was buried next to Jim, who had passed away 1 year prior. She thought about Christmas whenever she thought about them. They had always made such a big deal about this one holiday. Jim would string lights up on the front of the house, the garage, the pole barn, the horse gates, and even her room. He would play Bing Crosby records over and over and take her to see the reindeer at Zeke’s Farms every year. Betty would make Christmas cookies and put on these red and green elf tights before she passed out presents on Christmas morning.

            Elizabeth had always believed in God because of them. Not only did they adopt her, they brought her out of her shell. They taught her what love that doesn’t leave felt like. She trusted them to never leave her. But here she stands, only 33 and alone again; an orphan again, with no one to love her.

            She spent the next few months going through their things and sorting them out. She would pick up their clothes and smell them, then cry so loud without fear of embarrassment…because there was no one to hear her. Every morning, she would walk the same 3-mile route through the woods and dirt roads. Every morning, she would pass over this bridge that connected the two hemispheres of her town. She always considered falling off of it. She never did. Her belief of a God that loved her always kept her walking.

            Christmas Eve this year was spent alone. Elizabeth strung up the lights on the tree and in her room. She sat down in front of the tree by the fireplace with a glass of wine… Then another glass… Then a bottle. She thought about the day she was brought home from that orphanage. They were stern with her. They told her the house rules and the consequences of breaking them. They promised to love her and give her all she needed, even through difficult times. She liked that they smelled like a campfire and drove a really old car. Elizabeth fell into a deep sleep beneath the open window of the living room under the Christmas tree.

            Elizabeth opened her eyes to a different world. She was lying on the sidewalk beside the street. She was wearing a gray coat and worn out boots. Her hands were the hands she had when she was 5 years old. She was used to waking up being 5 years old again, but never in these surroundings. She surveyed the city. There were little children laying next to their mothers shivering and begging for food. There were also dirty little children jumping all around, playing street games like jump rope and stickball. As she walked, she watched a small child’s paper boat float away from him down the ditch toward the drain. Another dirty kid jumped out of the four square line and saved his boat from the drain. Everyone was helping everyone everywhere. It was as if no one were really alone.

            When she turned around, she saw a child even younger than her feeding bread to an old woman on the sidewalk. The little girl was wearing red and green tights like an elf. Elizabeth followed her around all day, watching her feed the hungry, bandage the wounded, and hug the crying children. Elizabeth followed her all the way home to her tenement building. She followed her up the stairs and into her small room with a steal bed. The curtains blew in with the winter breeze. She pulled the blankets over her head and fell asleep smiling and content.

            Elizabeth watched her all night. She didn’t move at all: She just slept. Elizabeth all of the sudden started crying. She tried to be quiet to not wake this little girl, but she had all of these guts that wanted out. She wept and thought of her mom…Betty, and her dad…Jim, stringing up all of those lights for no one to see but them. And her. She realized just then that they strung up the lights for her. They led her to where it was warm; to a place she would call home.

            She woke herself up crying. She felt both profoundly sad, but also so profoundly thankful. She looked up at the lights and knew that she had always been loved.

            When the sun would arise, she would drive Jim’s old truck down to the homeless shelter and spend Christmas feeding the people she saw in her dream.


Thanks for reading...Z